Karl Gruber needed practice shooting, Lorraine Vanderzanden thought, pulling her Ford Explorer to a stop in front of the Gruber bungalow on County Line Road. That much she knew from Laura Lee Gruber’s 911 call. Laura Lee and her mother were still alive, although dinner was ruined.
Lorraine killed the siren, but left the roof lights flashing till she could assess the situation. “Karl,” she called, safely behind a porch column, “come on out empty-handed. Everything’s goin’ to be all right.”
“Chief, this is a domestic matter. Don’t need no police.”
If Lorraine recalled correctly, Karl must be in his mid 70s, same as Laura Lee. His mother-in-law? Probably in her 90s, but like most women here still hearty and able to take nourishment.
“What’s the problem, Karl? Why’d Laura Lee call the police?”
“Well…” There was a pause while Karl seemed to be thinking through the situation. “It was her goddamn mother caused the ruckus.”
“Can I come in, Karl? Chat for a bit?” Lorraine unconsciously put her hand over the 9 mm Glock on her hip. Karl had a gun, she knew, and he’d fired off a round at the old lady. He might put a shot into Lorraine, too, if she wasn’t careful.
“Okay, but I ain’t gonna offer you no coffee cause I didn’t invite you.”
Cautiously, she opened the screen and stepped into the living room. Karl looked weary, sitting in the upholstered armchair under a picture of Jesus peering into the sky as though he might be forecasting rain. It’d been a helluva rainy summer in Iowa, all right. Laura Lee poked her face around the kitchen door quickly, then retreated. There was no gun in sight.
“What’s the problem?
“That damned old biddy…. I was fixin’ to do some work on the hall where the old lady made a hole with her electric wheelchair. Had my Spackle, my putty knife, piece of Sheetrock, and then the dogs started up in the back yard. So, I shut ‘em up in the kennel and came back for breakfast. Clean forgot my chore.”
“You’re a spry fellow, Karl, doing fix-it stuff before breakfast. Gotta hand it to you.” She glanced around to see if there might be a gun she hadn’t noticed.”
“Well, somebody’s got to keep this place up. Laura Lee’s a good wife — in the kitchen — and that’s the problem. She ordered me to sit down to breakfast, so I sat.”
“So far, so good,” Lorraine said, hoping he’d get to the point of why she was in his living room on a day when there was a ton of office work. This was a place where you didn’t hurry the natural processes of life, and conversation was one of the processes ordained to move with glacial speed.
“She give me some eggs, fried over easy, and orange juice — I like the pulpy kind, not that baby stuff tastes like water. And two pieces of toast with cream cheese. That’s when the trouble started.”
Lorraine fidgeted. “Karl, that’s what I want to know. What is the problem?”
“Yep. I ate breakfast, feeling kinda queasy, and got ready to do the plaster work. I opened my mouth to ask Laura Lee, ‘Where’s my Spackle?’ and my teeth were stuck together.’ Then the whole upper plate come out in my hand. Chief, those teeth cost me a thousand dollars! Holding my teeth in my hand, I says to Laura Lee, ‘It’s a little plastic container with a blue top,’ and she says, ‘How would I know where you keep your tools?’
“Somethin’ made me go back to the breakfast table, and there was my Spackle with a butter knife stickin’ out of it. ‘Laura Lee,’ I shouted to get the woman’s attention, ‘you put Spackle on my toast.’
“‘Why would I do that?’ she shouts back. ‘I don’t even know what Spackle is! And put your teeth back in your head. I can hardly understand you.’”
Lorraine began to dread hearing the rest of the story, watching it unfold like hay beginning to slide out of the loft because it was stacked wrong.
“Then her mother come in the kitchen, wheelin’ her electric wheelchair like a racer, and says, ‘Put that cream cheese back in the icebox before it spoils.’
“That’s when I leaped for the closet and got my Smith & Wesson. The Devil made me do it, Chief. I pounded off a round at the old lady but missed and shot Laura Lee’s roast beef thawing for dinner. Her mother wheeled out’n the kitchen and down the hall, making another hole in the plaster. Laura Lee screamed and threw plates at my head and it was all I could do to get out the kitchen door and hide in the kennel.”
“Laura Lee?” Lorraine called to the face poking around the corner. “This true? You Spackled his toast?”
“I just took it out’n the fridge. I don’t look at the fine print.”
“Your mother? Maybe your mother put it in the fridge?” Lorraine saw the trail of events unfolding.
“She can’t read without her glasses.”
“Hell, woman,” Karl shouted, “she can’t read with her glasses, less’n it’s Polish.”
It wasn’t until Lorraine got back to her desk to nurse a cup of coffee that she felt the laughter boil up. Lester, her deputy, came to her desk and asked, “Everything okay out at the Grubers’?”
“Yeah, just a false alarm. Not something you can sink your teeth into.”